Strictly Ballroom The Musical – Edinburgh Playhouse

Book by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce

Directed by Craig Revel Horwood

Choreography by Jason Gilkison and Craig Revel Horwood

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The safe bet to victory, or the pursuit of something new: that is the quandary which plagues Scott Hastings – a professional ballroom dancer who cannot quite crack it into the championship leagues. But that could all change, as the gifted, the talented, and the sequined Tina Sparkle suddenly needs a (sober) partner: while an Australian Dance Federation Kingpin, Barry Fife, needs a new headliner.

For those familiar with the BBC’s long-running success of Saturday night that is Strictly Come Dancing, the appearance of one of the show’s most beloved professional dancers might be what piques your interest, but Strictly Ballroom finds itself a third incarnation of Baz Luhrmann’s original, critically acclaimed, 1984 stage-play, following the 1992 film adaptation and 2016 musical.

In translating the film into the musical, the gaudy edge and vicious humour of Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom should rightfully shift-step onto the stage with relative ease – particularly given the ballroom royalty which entangles themselves within the romantic comedy piece which takes elements from the film – but loses much of it in translation. The pizzazz of the film and the sophistication of the original stage show (and this musical 2016 original) are lost amidst the influx of gooey gowns and visual gags.

The revived touring Strictly Ballroom looks to quick-paced pleasure and entertainment as a muse, with the insight into the competitive nature of dance relegated to the production’s second act. It is a shame, given the original narrative’s penchant for cut-throat demeanours and plastered-on smiles, which seems to have been played down in pursuit of slapstick, gags, and some overwhelming two-dimensional characterisations.

Suffering, though not from their performers, but Craig Revel Horwood’s more humour-focused direction and peculiar Craig Pearce’s re-structure of the story. The entire cast does punch well above expectations and limitations, particularly Mark Sangster and Stuart Rouse (filling in as Les) who run with the absurdity of it all as far as they are able. Towards the conclusion of the first act, an ignition of hope emerges for the remainder of the production – with a delightful reworking of the always superb Habaneras from Bizet’s Carmen. It is a revitalising charge for the entire theatre – and comes with a blossoming of the show’s real star – Fran.

Faye Brooks – though famed for Coronation Street, makes for a striking lead performance, stirring in the required elements of drama and naivety for Fran, a novice dancer with incredible natural talent. Their nervous jitters at working with the up-and-coming Scott Hastings work their way into Brooke’s performance movements, coming over as entirely natural – even charming.

But there is a passion beneath all the fluster and character – one which explodes come to production star moment, the originally choreographed Farruca and Flamenco segments from Jose Agudo, who devours the act one closer as Fran’s overprotective father Rico. Sharing the spotlight with Karen Mann playing Fran’s grandmother, the pair offer a nice deviation from the glitz and glamour of the ballroom, and into the folk-world and tradition of movement with a burning sense of passion and care.

And yes, it is time folks. Strictly fans will not be disappointed by Clifton’s presence, usually forefront of the action. There’s merit in the difficulty in balancing the story’s progression of Scott’s talents – Clifton is not firing on all cylinders from the off – because neither is his character. What happens is an evolution of the movement, character, and eventual technique – it is a tiny but fascinatingly well-executed choice from Clifton, and credit to Horwood. Vocally, Clifton does a sterling job – bringing in crowd-pleasing numbers Time After Time, and a warming duet of Beautiful Surprise with Brookes, though her solo number Fran’s Epiphany sets her above the rest.

The pair share a genuine sense of chemistry, but the levels of performance differ too drastically in approach: Clifton continues to overly play to a non-existent camera while Brookes to the crowd. Unfortunately, it is not aided in any manner by Mark Walters’ set design, which does not match the calibre of their costume. It is a restrictive staging – a unique, though compact encroaching dome contains the action, but also limits the space available for the movement.

It is not an issue for all, as Gary Davis brings the Panto-esque villainy of Barry Fife and soaks up every ounce of the stage. There are even a few ripples of Sir Les Patterson from the late Barry Humphries in their lewd and more perverted moments. It is a great character performance which stands out against others – able to offer a much-needed slice of villainy in the show’s climax as the gammon-faced brute seeks to stamp out anything ‘new’ or innovative. And a special mention for Keiran Cooper, Edinburgh MGA Academy of Performing Arts as friend/rival of Scott, Wayne: who, like us, has absolutely no clue what the bogo pogo is – but makes for a stellar dancer with Maddy Ambus.

Where the original, its 2016 re-vamp, and Luhrmann’s cinematic marvel had a more cut-throat nature and crash and cheeky attitude, this current touring instead has taken a far more recognisable structure for most audiences – and make no mistake; Strictly Ballroom is precisely what the people want. Flashy, giddy, and entertaining, the Edinburgh Playhouse stage belts out some of the best tunes this week with terrific dance moves. Just don’t go looking for a significant amount of depth, and you’re in for a toe-tapping extravaganza. 

Toe-Tapping Extravaganza

Strictly Ballroom runs at The Edinburgh Playhouse until May 13th. Monday – Saturday at 19.30pm. Matinees at 14.30pm on Wednesday and Saturday. Suitable for ages 12+
Runs for two hours and twenty minutes with one interval. 

Tickets begin from £13.00 and may be obtained here.


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